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Stop Cutting 'That'

When I ask my audiences which words or phrases they like to cut from their drafts, someone often mentions the word “that.”

Not so fast, I suggest. I plucked the example below from the first pages of an Illinois Court of Appeals opinion on Buffalo Wild Wings and on trailing modifiers in restrictive covenants (don’t ask). In this sentence, and in millions more just like it, cutting “that” does more harm than good:

After an evidentiary hearing, the court found Buffalo Wild Wings was not a fast-food restaurant and, hence, was not covered by the restrictive covenant.

Why? Because the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant wasn’t lost, so the court didn’t “find” it, despite what the court suggests. (Tip: We should also change “hence” to “thus” and cut the pair of commas.)

So we end up with something like this:

After an evidentiary hearing, the court found that Buffalo Wild Wings was not a fast-food restaurant and thus was not covered by the restrictive covenant.

Other sentences in this opinion need similar fixes:

The court found the action was to determine the consequences of future action: in the event Reed returned the dozer, would Roland be obligated to accept it and return the purchase price?

Why? Because the court didn’t find a lost action here; it found that the action had an aim.

Lopax appeals the court’s decisions (1) the restrictive covenant covered only fast-food restaurants serving primarily chicken, (2) the declaratory-judgment action was not barred by the doctrine of nonliability[.]

Why? Lopax, for its part, didn’t appeal a “decision the restrictive covenant covered” (whatever that might mean); it appealed from a decision that the covenant covered a certain kind of restaurant.

Bottom line: give “that” a break.

And by doing so, you’ll be following the lead of the Supreme Court:

Anthony Kennedy, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, opinion:

Austin had held that Congress could prohibit independent expenditures for political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity.

John Paul Stevens, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, dissent:

Yet in a variety of contexts, we have held that speech can be regulated differentially on account of the speaker’s identity, when identity is understood in categorical or institutional terms.

And then-Solicitor General Don Verrilli:

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., FCC v. Fox Television Stationsmerits brief:

Fox contends that past Commission orders involving those words could not have alerted it that the Billboard Music Awards broadcasts would be considered indecent because the prior orders involved the “repeated[]” use of the expletives.

Moreover, many programs are not rated at all, and even for rated programs, a recent study found that “only 5% of parents felt that television ratings were always accurate.”

And even the Wall Street Journal:

The Georgia Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling concludes that the 1994 state law “restricts speech in violation of the free speech clauses” of the U.S. and Georgia constitutions.

In congressional testimony on Thursday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledged that low rates penalize savers.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you never cut “that.” I’m simply suggesting that confusing the reader even for a second is far worse than including one short four-letter word. So while “The court found the bank” can mislead, “I suggest you call him” cannot.

And that’s enough of “that.”